A new smiling and entertaining Gordon Brown emerged on the international speakers’ circuit on Saturday when the former gruff British prime minister spoke on global economic crises at a big policy conference in New Delhi. As a beginner on the circuit, where his political friend-turned-foe Tony Blair has made many millions of pounds, Mr Brown did well.
Headlined “Lessons from the Last Global Crisis”, his strong theme was that, as a fast growing “knowledge super-power”, India should play a leading role in the G20 and other economic assemblies at a time. The world needed much more international co-operation to stem future crises and India should speak out on the international stage.
This is the theme of a book that he said he is writing, and it also links with his suspected ambition to head an international financial institution.
“Your role at G-20 is absolutely critical. India is right at the centre of the discussions,” he told the Hindustan Times’ annual Leadership Summit (right). “Do not under-estimate your strength and your leaders’ ability to make a difference and to influence world affairs if you wish to do so”.
Mr Brown was of course right about what India should do; but this is not something the country has done very effectively in recent years, and it will be a challenge for its political leaders and diplomats to carve out an influential niche.
This was probably discussed earlier on the day when Mr Brown was the chief guest at a lunch hosted by Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister. There is a rapport between the two men, even though India was not high on Mr Brown’s list of priority countries when he was in office. Mr Singh is a former economics academic and has led India’s economic liberalisation for most of the past 20 years, while Mr Brown was Britain’s finance minister for ten years. (Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, does not have such resonance. Manmohan Singh could not recall his name when he spoke to the conference, even though Mr Cameron came to India with a flock of minister in July, as the Financial Times has has reported).
Mr Brown did not have the relaxed informal polish of former US vice president Al Gore, who also spoke on Saturday, but Mr Gore has been pounding the speakers’ circuit with a scary climate change message for many years.
Mr Brown was visibly trying very hard to be smart and relaxed. His hair had been brylcreamed into some sort of order, and he was genuinely amusing, even though he fluffed some of his jokes by delivering half the punchline first.
He also seemed to let slip his lack of interest in armed forces, which critics say led to under-funding of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Talking about leaders who had courage, he explained that “by courage” he did “not mean military battlefield bravado”, but the will power to stand up for “strong beliefs” that had been shown by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
That was a good line for an Indian audience, but a British Labour Party veteran tells me that the slighting use of the word “bravado” may stem from Mr Brown’s early days on the radical Clydeside Left of the Labour Party, where armed forces were regarded with suspicion because military action and warfare were broadly seen as by-products of capitalism.
Mr Brown has travelled a long way since then, as his support for the Iraq invasion showed. Asked about the British involvement, he neatly distanced himself from Mr Blair and the US, while not opposing what had happened. He said he did not regret the invasion because Saddam Hussein had “broken enough rules” to be attacked; but he thought that it was for history to decide if the timing was right, or whether more diplomacy should have taken place first. He admitted that the job of reconstruction had been “badly done” with “no plans at all”.
Mr Brown may not have been a first choice for the conference, where other international speakers included the Dalai Lama as well as Mr Gore. Rumours suggest other possible speakers had included Richard Holbrooke, America’s Afghanistan and Pakistan trouble-shooter, and even David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary, who was recently beaten by his younger brother to take over the Labour Party leadership from Mr Brown.
If those speakers did decline, it was good news for Mr Brown – and for the conference – because he spoke with sufficient humour and passion to deserve a prominent spot on the lucrative international speakers’ circuit, and he had a strong message to deliver about international financial crises. He came to Delhi from Harvard university where he had been speaking on international development.
There are various estimates of what Mr Brown was paid, but around $75,000 (£50,000) seems the most likely for the 50 minutes he spent making the speech and answering questions. That is far below both the $300,000 that Al Gore commands and Tony Blair’s $400,000-500,000. A spokeswoman told the Daily Mail that Mr Brown’s fee would help to cover the running costs of a company set up to pursue his writing and lecture tours.
The event also gave him a chance to deliver another dig at Mr Blair, who has just published his political memoirs. “Who said what to who doesn’t add much to history,” said Mr Brown, adding that he is writing a book on his theme of financial crises and the need for international co-operation. Also, he said, there would be no memoirs “because I feel young”.